The Battle of the River Plate was the first naval battle of World War II and the only battle of World War II to take place in South America or its waters. The Graf Spee was one of three Deutschland Class “pocket battleships” built by the Germans in the interwar period to get around treaty restrictions imposed after World War I. The three ships were the Deutschland, Admiral Scheer, and Admiral Graf Spee. All three ships were to be destroyed during the course of the war.
The ship was designate to act as a commerce raider and was at sea when the war began. After getting new orders she began commerce raiding in the South Atlantic on September 20th, 1939. She sank 9 British merchant ships totaling over 50,000 tons displacement by December. One thing that made the ship notable is the conduct of the ship’s captain who meticulously followed the laws of war and allowed the crews of all his captures to evacuate to lifeboats before sinking them.
At 0520 on December 13th Force G spotted the Graf Spee’s smoke and Graf Spee had already spotted the British ships thinking the two light cruisers were destroyers. Graf Spee fired first at 0618 and hit the Exeter on her third salvo scoring a direct hit on Exeter’s “B” turret knocking it out of action and killing most of the bridge crew. The two light cruisers fired torpedoes that missed and Exeter’s “A” turret was hit as she attempted to fire torpedoes but Exeter had also hit the Graf Spee destroying Graf Spee’s fuel processing system as well as having lost 2/3 of her AA guns and one secondary turrets. Graf Spee then turned away laying smoke and as she fled she struck Ajax twice disabling Ajax’s “X” and “Y” turrets and destroying the ships mast.
The Graf Spee made for the neutral Uruguayan port of Montevideo and entered the estuary of the River Plate being shadowed by the still undamaged HMS Achilles. At midnight Graf Spee entered the harbor of Montevideo hoping to make repairs to her fuel processing system and then leave to reengage the British squadron. Under the British pressure the Uruguayan government demanded that the Graf Spee leave port within 72 hours or face internment, not enough time for repairs to be made. At the same time the British made out that they had more reinforcements in the area leading Kapitän Langsdorff to believe his ship would be destroyed once he left port. He decided therefor to scuttle the ship instead of allowing it to be interned in Montevideo for the duration of the war.
On December 17th as the 72-hour grace period expired Langsdorff decided to t scuttle the ship and ordered the destruction of all sensitive equipment and the dispersal of remaining ammunition throughout the ship. Most of the crew was taken off the ship by Argentine barges on the 17th. On December 18th Langsdorff and a skeleton crew of 40 men moved the Graf Spee into the outer roadstead of the harbor and scuttled it while a crowd of up to 20,000 people watched from shore. The majority of the crew went into internment in Argentina and stayed here throughout the war. On December 20th Kapitän Langsdorff committed suicide in his hotel room while lying on the ships ensign.
The ship itself was investigated and partially salvaged by the British during the war looking for items of intelligence value. In 2003 a local consortium started to salvage the wreck hoping to salvage it as intact as possible for use as a museum. Parts of the ship have been raised and the ship’s Stern Eagle is on display in Montevideo.